Ever noticed those big ugly brown roots lining the tables at farmers’ markets and natural food stores? Chances are, they’re yacon (yah-CON) — those sweet, scrumptious vegetables that are the rage in health circles these days.
Strange and ugly as they may appear, their amazing taste and equally amazing health benefits put them right on top of superfoods lists.
Yacon, or Smallanthus sonchifolius (also Polymnia sonchifolia), is a perennial plant native to the Andes mountains of South America. Also called apple of the earth, underground pear and strawberry jicama, it produces a clump of tuberous roots that are crunchy like apples and sweet like watermelons. While maybe just a fraction of Americans have tasted and enjoyed this novel vegetable, fewer still have attempted to grow it. Much of the yacon sold in the market is imported from Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. But why pay when you can grow your own? If you can grow Jerusalem artichokes, dahlias and parsnips where you are, then you grow yacon. You even can get a head start on spring and plant a few in your greenhouse.
Yacon’s name, translated from the Inca/Quechuan word llaqon, means “watery root.” Legend has it that Inca travellers of ancient times brought the roots on long journeys to quench their thirst. Usually big and bulky, the tubers look like yams or sweet potatoes, growing in size of up to 8 inches and weighing up to 2 pounds or so. The juicy flesh inside is either white, yellow, orange, pink or purple. In the U.S., the variety that grows is mostly white.
Yacons are a close relative of the sunflower and Jerusalem artichokes. They have large, velvety leaves and small, daisy-like yellow flowers.
Weight Loss Wonder
Rich in potassium, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, B vitamins and antioxidants, yacon has been prized by the Japanese and much of South America for its weight loss and anti-diabetes benefits for a long time. Only last year did it become popular in the U.S. after Dr. Mehmet Oz featured yacon syrup on his show, calling it the “metabolism game-changer” in weight loss. Because yacon increases metabolism, it doesn’t require weight-watchers to do additional exercises or go on a special diet. Since then, yacon supplements in powder and especially syrup have become the hottest new trend in weight loss circles across the country.
Sometimes called “the diet potato,” yacon has been shown to have an appetite-suppressing effect when taken with meals. It leaves one feeling satiated, thereby reducing food intake and further cravings. Best of all, it has very low calorie levels.
Much of the weight of these fruit-like vegetables consists of water and an important component, the fructooligosaccharides (FOS). FOS is a naturally occurring plant carbohydrate that goes largely un-metabolized in our bodies. They have a prebiotic effect, which means they merely pass through the gastrointestinal tract and gets transported to the colon where they are fermented by the good microflora in our guts — such as Bifidus and Lactobacillus – thus helping digestion and promoting colon health.
High in fiber, yacon tubers have a slight laxative effect so they relieve constipation and bloating, while preventing gastric and renal disorders.
Good news for diabetics: Yacon has a very low glycemic index. Those with blood sugar issues can take it without seeing a spike in their blood glucose levels, so they can use its juice to sweeten their drinks, desserts and dressings without worry. Yacon syrup, in particular, has a sweetness similar to that of caramel, molasses and raisins.
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According to MotherEarthNews.com, tea made from yacon leaves can also reduce blood sugar by increasing the amount of insulin circulating in the blood stream.
Cardio Health and Cancer Prevention. There are many reports about yacon’s ability to promote cardio-vascular health by controlling low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or bad cholesterol in the blood, as well as reducing blood pressure.
In 2011, a study published in the October issue of the medicinal plant journal Fitoterapia reported that yacon inhibited the growth of cervical cancer cells and promoted early cell death. Another study appearing in Chemistry and Biodiversity, in December 2010, cited a fungus that grows on the roots and leaves of yacon that has anti-cancer properties against colon, skin, nerve and blood cancers.
How to grow
While yacon grows best in plant hardiness zones 7-11, it can thrive anywhere there’s consistent moisture and moderate heat. It can easily be cultivated in kitchen gardens where the climate is mild and the growing season is long.
Yacón plants are vigorous growers. They are almost completely disease-free and pest-free. They like rich, well-drained soil and grow best with compost or fertilizers.
They do take time to develop tubers, though. While you can’t expect a huge harvest on the first year, you can look forward to better yields in succeeding seasons. Produce is usually double or triple those of potatoes. In Oregon, successful growers can fill a 5-gallon bucket with tubers from a single plant.
How to eat
Yacon tubers get sweeter a few days after they’re picked. You can set them out in the sun to mellow or “cure” for several days before eating. (Some people allow them to sit for up to two weeks.) But if you’re diabetic, consume the roots sooner rather than later. Green Deane of EattheWeeds.com says that while curing increases the sweetness of the tubers, it also increases the kinds of sugars diabetics should avoid.
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Enjoy them raw and peeled like a fruit, or sprinkled with lemon juice and honey. Dice or slice them thinly and add to salads. British gardener Mark Diacono, who wrote the award-winning book A Taste of the Unexpected (Book of the Year Award 2011 by the Guild of Food Writers), recommends grating yacon with carrots in a mustardy vinaigrette with a handful of sunflower and pumpkin seeds, or combining it, chopped, with chunks of pineapple, papaya and mango, dressed in freshly squeezed orange juice and a spritz of lemon. Mmmm….
You can also stir-fry, roast, steam or bake yacon. Since it easily absorbs sauces, it is a wonderful carrier of flavors in sautéed dishes. Just toss them in the last 2 minutes before serving so they don’t lose their crunch.
If you have the time and are feeling adventurous, you can juice or ferment yacon into pickles or wine, make into marmalade and pie filling, or dry into chips. In South America, yacon juice is extracted and concentrated to make dark brown blocks of sugar called chancaca.
Fresh young leaves can be enjoyed as a vegetable wrap just like cabbage or lettuce leaves. However, consume only moderately as there has been a study showing the leaves’ adverse effects on the kidneys. Young stems can also be cooked like vegetables.
Fresh yacon roots will keep well in root cellars  or cold basements for many months. Just store them in dark, somewhat humid spots like you would potatoes. Placing them inside 5-gallon buckets covered in sand would be best to protect from rats and rodents.
What are your yacon growing or serving tips? Share them in the section below: